Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Importance of Allegories: The Tortoise and The Birds

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At first, when I read chapter 11 of Things Fall Apart, I completely overlooked the idea that the story of the greedy tortoise was in fact an allegory. When we went over the allegorical folktale in class, I began to wonder why people all around the world continuously utilize these folktales. Every culture has their own set of allegories and folk tales that highlights their unique cultural beliefs and values. Although these allegories may seem simple in plot and character, they actually hint at previous or future events while demonstrating a moral lesson or principle.

In the novel, Things Fall Apart, one mother, Ekwefl, retells the allegorical story of a deceitful tortoise to her daughter, Ezinma, during their nightly retelling of  folk tales. The story also allegorically references to the future where the intelligent and cunning white man will want to seize all of the splendors of the land and change their culture entirely. The allegorical story begins with a tortoise “full of cunning” who realized that the birds were going to enjoy a feast in the sky. The tortoise represents the colonial invasion that is about to strike. The use of the word cunning to describe the tortoise also gives an accurate description of the “cunning” white colonizers, who use their wits and skill to deceive the Igbo people into helping them achieve their goal.

Cunning Tortoise The spoken allegorical story continues as the tortoise  begged with birds to help him make wings so that he too could enjoy their feast. Although the birds knew he was full of mischief, they truly believed he had changed and wanted to help them with his great orator skills. This part of the story also becomes allegorical in that the Igbo people did not trust the new white man. They had heard stories of what the white colonists could accomplish yet as seen in the story, the Igbo people might help the colonists because in their culture they believe that people can change their demeanor.

While this folk tale works as an allegory for the colonization of African it also displays many truths of human existence. A prominent truth displayed in the folk tale was the demonstration of what happens when one becomes too greedy. The tortoise who wanted more than those around him literally had a tragic fall due to his greed. While the tortoise became greedy about food, the concept of greed relates to other people in the novel.

This inherent human greed can apply to both the future colonizers of the Igbo and the future of Okonkwo. The future colonization of Africa will happen because of greed and the need to assert themselves as the superior race. They have a desire for power which far succeeds the care they should have for those they might hurt along the way. In the same way that the tortoise thought about only himself during the feast, the colonizers will destroy the African people yet, will only think about their rise to power.

Colonialism and Greed

Colonialism and Greed

Okonkwo also deals with the tragic flaw of greed in that he has a strong and selfish desire to be the most powerful male in the clan. Through the folk tale, we see that if Okonkwo continues on his greedy and selfish road to power, he too will fall and break into pieces.

In the end, this allegory reminded me of the importance of keeping allegorical stories alive and retold. They keep our historical culture alive and remind us of events that happened in a simple and enjoyable way. By keeping these allegorical stories around, we are reminded of deeper morals or truths that could prevent us from our own tragic flaw.

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As a child, I grew up hearing my parents say “You know what they say, ‘when you assume, you make an *** of you and me'” The punchline for this joke was never said for the sake of them telling it to their 11 year old daughter, but the concept is still the same.

Assuming comes from a person’s inherent want to create a generalization for everything they have ever encountered. These generalizations are flawed because even if there is one example that falsifies the assumption, the entire generalization is wrong. However, I feel that people in modern day society will find one or maybe even a few exemptions from their created stereotype, but they will not change their incorrect generalization.

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This stubborn stereotype is much like Binyavanga Wainaina’s article, “How to Write About Africa”. In this article, Wainaina pokes fun at the long held generalizations made about Africa and how people are still using them today when writing about Africa. African stereotypes such as using words like tribal or displaying primal naked warriors displays the idea of creating a continent off of a single story. Novels and movies create a single story about how Africa is a “country” that needs to be saved by the all powerful white man.

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At first, I truly believed that I was superior and did not create generalizations or stereotypes about other people. But then I realized that perhaps single story generalizations could be made within my own country. Even though my parents had warned me not to assume, I realized that by watching movies or television shows about a certain state, I was creating stereotypes about every person who lived there. Whether it was watching Blue Crush and assuming everyone in Hawaii surfed or watching Seabiscuit and assuming that everyone in Kentucky rode horses, I was making incorrect generalizations.

It was not until I came to TCU when I realized how much I relied on my stereotypes when I met new people. I would ask if they rode their horse or if their neighbors were Mormon and polygamist. I did not realize how silly my single-story stereotype questions were until I was asked if, being from southern California, I surfed to school every morning and lived next to only celebrities. At first I laughed because this made absolutely no sense to me, there is no possible way to surf to a specific location and in a city of millions of people there is no chance that both of my neighbors were celebrities. It was then that I realized that my stereotype questions probably sounded the same to them. My single story assumption was a sad attempt at understanding the world around me but it was then when I realized I could expand my knowledge and let in more stories so that one story could turn into thousands.